Why I Am a TV Loser

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 28, 2008; 6:13 AM

Don't ever go on CNBC to debate Bob Compton, one of America's most energetic prophets of doom, without careful preparation and a willingness to be rude.

I appeared with Compton on Erin Burnett's show "Street Signs" in early June. He killed me. I thought we would have a scholarly discussion of American public schools. Were they, as Compton argues, losing out to the rising Indian and Chinese schools or were they, as I had written, needing help but unlikely to cause a collapse of the U.S. economy? I got a few words in occasionally, but Compton -- whose enthusiasm I applaud, don't get me wrong -- interrupted, sideswiped and left me looking like I was incapable of completing a sentence.

That was, of course, exactly what he was supposed to do. It was cable TV, for goodness sake. Discussions there are supposed to be fast and loud. Compton tells me he thought he was being aggressive, not rude. That's not the way my mother would see it, but I agree with Bob. I just wasn't ready.

My humbling defeat got me thinking about how we Americans have been handling our anxiety about losing our place at the top of the world food chain. The debate over these issues has been like my tussle with Bob -- fast, loud, short and frustratingly incomplete.

Compton is a successful high-tech entrepreneur who made himself into an first-rate polemicist. His one-hour documentary film, "Two Million Minutes," pushes our most sensitive cultural buttons. He argues that kids in India and China are studying much harder than U.S. students. In the film he chronicles two fun-loving teens in Carmel, Ind., an affluent Indianapolis suburb, and shows how little attention they pay to their homework compared to two students of similar age in China and two in India.

I interviewed Compton and responded to his film twice, in a Feb. 11 column and in a piece in the spring issue of the Wilson Quarterly. I confessed I, too, was distressed to see, in his film, Carmel High's Brittany Brechbuhl watching "Grey's Anatomy" on television with her friends while they were allegedly doing their math homework. I said I agreed we had to fix our high schools, not because of the threat of international competition but to end the shame of having millions of low-income students drop out and fail to get the education they deserve. I said I admired Compton's consistency in insisting that his daughters spend more time on their studies just as he wants all American teens to do.

But I pointed out that we had little evidence that our languid attitude toward algebra homework had much to do with the strength of our economy. Twenty years ago critics were blaming our schools for letting the Japanese get ahead of us, only to fall silent when Japan got into economic trouble despite maintaining a lead in test scores. Many economists argued, I said, that our social, political and economic freedoms, not our education system, make us more productive and creative than other countries. I said Compton, an admittedly mediocre student at James Madison High School in Vienna and Principia College in Elsah, Ill., exemplifies the point. His energy and imagination found the room they needed to prosper in this country which, I said, "gives even B and C students more chances than A students in China and India have."

I tried to say this on CNBC, too. But Compton cut me off, saying I obviously didn't know what was going on in Asia because I have never been to India and haven't visited China (where I was once The Post correspondent) since 1989. He said his documentary showed the real situation. I tried to say if he had visited Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, or Whitney High in California, or New Trier High in Illinois, or Cherry Creek High in Colorado, or BASIS Charter School in Arizona, he would have found students just as focused on achievement as the four he filmed in China and India.

But that is all anecdotal chatter. It may be interesting to watch on television, but it doesn't get at all the issues, both those that indicate we are in trouble and those that indicate the opposite. Compton, like any good polemicist, is not going to point out any facts that weaken his own case. We are getting similarly unhelpful propaganda in an upcoming series of TV commercials funded by the Strong American Schools group. One will show a child raising above the U.S. flag the flags of nations whose average international test scores are better than ours.

I yearn for more information, not more ads. Some quick Internet research indicates about 10 percent of Chinese and Indian students go to college, compared to 60 percent of ours. About 30 percent of Americans get college degrees. The comparable number in India and China is not clear. Neither is the quality of their science and engineering programs compared to ours.

Vivek Wadhwa, a high-tech entrepreneur teaching at Duke University, has shared with me some of his research, and his occasional e-mail exchanges with Compton. Wadhwa, like Compton, is a successful businessman with a first-hand grasp of the difficulties American companies have finding engineering talent. He tells both sides, supporting Compton on some points and criticizing him on others.

What is happening in India and China is that private companies, not public school systems, are doing the training that is producing the technical elite building those economies, Wadhwa said. If U.S. corporate leaders such as Bill Gates, he said, are worried about losing to competing nations, they should do more as executives to train their own workforce. "All they are doing now is to blame our teachers and put the burden on our children," he said.

I hope I am in better shape if Compton and I have a rematch. But whatever the outcome, it won't mean much. I encourage scholars and journalists living China and India to further examine those economies and education systems and give us something more than two-week-visit impressions. New research by Stanford's Eric Hanushek and other experts suggests that student cognitive skills have a significant impact on economic growth. I would like to see more on that.

Personally, I think prosperity in other parts of the world is good news. It means happier people with more choices. It may even mean more freedom and less war. Compton and I agree that would be a good thing.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company